Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is the lanky, awkward valedictorian who sets himself up for a lifetime of potential humiliation when he confuses his commencement address as the perfect opportunity to admit that since the eighth grade he has secretly been in love with his classmate, the popular cheerleader, Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere, who seems to be getting typecast as the cute, affable cheerleader with spunk). This sets into motion a series of events that one can only describe as bordering between surreal and implausible. The implausible seems to revolve mainly around Beth’s perversely controlling boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts, playing a cross between Dennis Quaid in “The Right Stuff” and a steroid), who engages in chases, beatings and psychopathic behavior that borders on criminally insane if not comically embarrassing, after Cooverman’s fitting description as, “Some kind of creepy loser who can’t get an adult girlfriend,” still loitering around the school grounds. I’m still not sure what the hell ROTC cadets are doing wearing Medal of Honor colors on their lapel pins and shoulder cords, but nevermind…
This is a strange sort of movie, with its oddly-timed flashbacks shifting from relatively normal drama and setting to caricaturesque sequences, including that of Dr. Gleason, the principal who acts more like a boorish socialite than a school administrator. I guess we’re to believe that the school has a juxtaposition of academic nerd children of affluent parents and preppie larvae, but the film never quite clearly establishes that beyond the introductory graduation scene. Having attended a high school inundated with preppie larvae and academic nerds, I can tell you that I have never once encountered someone as hilariously unreal as Kevin even though I knew a wrestler who came awfully close… to being thrown through a window by a very large, childlike friend of mine who objected to having his Happy Meal tampered with by said wrestler—another time, another story.
The comedy, or attempt thereof, begins when Beth and her friends decide to drop in on a party hosted by Denis and his pal Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter), who says his parents have estimated that he owes them in excess of $233,000 for eighteen years of mental anguish. This is where the film does fall into the slapstick routine of property destruction, chases and general mayhem involving the aforementioned Kevin. However, later, the film finds a footing of sorts when it gets down to brass tacks about what Denis and Beth are about. While the characterizations are somewhat limited, we get glimpses into their individual psyches. Consider the surgical precision with which the pre-med Denis unwraps the cover of a champagne bottle, and when puzzled by his difficulty opening it exclaims, “The internal pressure is ninety pounds per square inch.” Or Beth’s friend Treece, who insightfully notes, “Wine reminds me of Jesus.” Or Kevin who, while on a rampage after Denis, stops on the stairwell and backs up a step to punch Denis’ portrait.
And then there’s the reckless Cooper, who at one point engages in an act so spontaneous (which I will not spoil) it defies the persona that Denis has been fantasizing about all these years. After having hit him with the car and watching him get beat up by Kevin, she insensitively asks, “Are you just gonna keep bleeding?” The line is comical in context, but it leads into a more serious discussion of the differences, as Shakespeare himself even toyed with, between seeming and being. Why do these girls date the Kevins of the world? I wondered, why not me… err, Denis? Beth answers that she liked the way the other girls looked at her. I was reminded of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a vastly more intelligent film with a different plot, aimed nonetheless at the same conclusions. The difference between teenage infatuation (which can last well into one’s thirties) and true love is when one stops loving the person they perceive in their head and starts appreciating, genuinely, who that person truly is—virtues, flaws, all. Or, to put it as astutely as Beth does, “Am I everything you ever masturbated to?”
Is this a great film? Hardly. Even though the editing leaves gaps that may be intended to reflect awkward silences, they linger for two or three beats too long in places where the point has been made. It’s almost as if space was left to anticipate loud audience laughter, which never works in film, and only barely so in television—nevermind a press screening with five or ten critics, none of whom dare let their colleagues know that they found something amusing or appalling (except of course Kael who was famous for yelling things at the screen). Mr. Rust himself does a good job of supplying the maladroit tenor, but being a relative unknown it may simply be that the studio didn’t trust him to carry that weight alone. That’s too bad. At first I thought his gawky persona was a bit forced but he eases into the character, and the character into himself, as the adventure, however derivative, progresses. Ms. Panettiere seems to lack the versatility to play anyone but herself, though I’m not sure her driving skills are stuntman-grade in real life. But here it works well enough, given that the story is about Denis, and her virtues (other than knowing all the words to an Alice Cooper song recorded years before she was born) are revealed through his observations. However, I did like Alan Ruck as Denis’ father. Ruck, some of you will recall, played the equally-paranoid, equally-green Cameron Frye in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—a deliberate nod, I think, by director Chris Columbus who took over the Home Alone franchise from the aforementioned Hughes. Here Mr. Ruck plays a sympathetic, affluent and educated father hip enough to have a getaway in the back of his Volvo wagon with his wife, played by the unconventionally charismatic Cynthia Stevenson—underrated ever since her turn as Bonnie Sherow in Robert Altman’s The Player. There’s a hysterical, yet oddly real moment at the beginning of the film when he stares in earnest, hand on his son’s shoulder, and declares, “There are condoms in the drawer of the bedside table,” as if impelling his immensely unhip son to seize the moment (should it ever transpire).
The movie could have been much improved by slicing a few frames from each shot, and reining in Rust’s weirdness just a bit—so as to not contribute to the lumbering, hallucinogenic feel of his initial characterization. Beth Cooper on the other hand really exists. She is an amalgam of several girls I have known. Pretty, aloof, destructive and insecure, I’m sure we’ve all known a Beth Cooper in part or in whole. There’s an honestly heartfelt moment when she tells Denis, “Thank you for loving me.” And she means it.
With that sentiment in mind, I would like to take a moment to thank the following: Shana, the eccentric, worldly tomboy who served as the template for all other crushes that followed (including my wife); Shannon, the sweetest, most outgoing athlete, and the only one who ever asked me to dance; Erin, Kris and Bitsy, three cheerleaders, hearts of gold each, kind enough to acknowledge me; Heather, the silent rebel with the intellectual streak; Liz, the intellectual with a rebel streak (albeit not so silent); Randi, the warmest smile that could make you feel human on your coldest day; Robin, I don’t need to tell you why (and I promised myself a long time ago I’d stop embarrassing you with my Lloyd Dobler routine); and finally my wife Meg, for being my intellectual superior and best friend. The best parts of each of you comprise the best parts of who I have become.
I Love You, Beth Cooper • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence. • Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.